Editorial: Protecting kids requires tightening Florida's gun-storage law

Published Jan. 27, 2017

A well-intentioned law aimed at protecting Florida's children by requiring safe storage of firearms needs to be scrubbed of language that renders it ineffective. State lawmakers should pass a bill that would accomplish this by homing in on its operative phrase: Gun owners "shall keep the firearm in a securely locked box or container or shall secure it with a trigger lock."

Layered onto this requirement now are enough baffling caveats to put off any prosecutor who might consider using it to bring criminal charges. They include these phrases: "or in a location which a reasonable person would believe it to be secure," and, "or within such close proximity thereto that he or she can retrieve and use it as easily as if he or she carried it on his or her body."

Florida gets credit from many gun-control organizations as one of the few states with a safe-storage law and as one of the first to adopt one. But those who live here need not look far to find examples of why change is required.

Last week, a 4-year-old boy shot himself in the chest with a handgun he found under a dresser at his north Tampa apartment while he was in the care of his mother's boyfriend. The boy, according to the mother, will recover. The number of children killed or injured by firearms in Florida is building already with the year just started, according to a sponsor of the bill, Sen. Gary Farmer, a Hollywood Democrat.

Nationwide, minors died from accidental shootings — at their own hands, or at the hands of other children or adults — at a pace of one every other day during the first six months of 2016, according to an Associated Press investigation.

The recent north Tampa shooting reflects one especially tragic finding from the AP report: Deaths and injuries spike for children under 5, with 3-year-olds the most common shooters and victims among young children.

The child-safety measure is one in a series of new restrictions proposed by gun-control advocates, mostly Democrats, for the legislative session opening March 7. Most are a response to the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre in June and would make it harder for potentially dangerous people to obtain firearms — tougher background checks, plus bans on so-called assault weapons and on the purchase of guns by people on terrorist watch lists.

The Republican Legislature's track record would not indicate sympathy toward tightening the safe-storage law even with children in mind. This is the body, after all, that passed a law making it illegal for doctors to ask parents about gun safety.

Sen. Farmer acknowledges the challenge in passing any restrictions in Tallahassee on the purchase and use of guns. But he said he aims to speak about the safe-storage proposal with Sen. Greg Steube, the Sarasota Republican whose Judiciary Committee is a first stop. Steube is a chief sponsor of measures that would ease restrictions on carrying guns in Florida, but Farmer is hoping he'll see that this measure protects children without restricting gun rights.

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Whether the bill even gets a substantive debate is in doubt given the committee path it has been assigned. But if it does, one question likely to arise is whether it would ever be used.

According to research cited by the pro-gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety, prosecutors did bring safe-storage violation charges in most cases involving the accidental shooting death of a child where the weapon involved was purchased illegally. In shootings where a legally owned weapon was involved, the group said, charges were brought in only a handful of cases.

Whether a tighter safe-storage requirement would have mattered in the recent north Tampa shooting also is open to question. The boyfriend caring for the 4-year-old had a lengthy criminal record and was hauled away from the apartment to face charges including possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Still, a number of national studies cited by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence shows how laws requiring safe storage might serve as a preventive measure. One example: Seventy-three percent of children under 10 in households with guns say they know where the firearms are located and 36 percent admit they have handled the weapons.

What's more, Farmer notes, his measure would at least give investigators and prosecutors a more effective tool than the existing law by clarifying when it can be applied. Its usefulness now is swallowed up by the subjective "reasonable person would believe it to be secure" clause. Does that mean the top of a bookshelf? One judge might say yes, another no.

By putting teeth in the law, and taking away the wiggle room, the Legislature would quite simply make Florida a safer place for children. As Everytown for Gun Safety says: It's not about the gun, it's about whether it's secured.